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The Lay of Homecoming

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Garholt had never witnessed a commotion to match the one that followed Gair's decision to go and live among the Dorig.

"And you were just going to go!" Gest roared, ignoring Ayna's attempts to steer him away from the looms as he gestured at wildly in their midst. "Without telling anyone! Without telling me!"

Gair's face took on that stubborn, awkward look which only served to remind Gest that he still did not understand his son. "I just did."

His bags were sitting at his feet, neatly packed and fastened. His travelling cloak was slung around his shoulders. Gest ignored the little sick twist of panic in his gut to snap, "You're needed here!"

Gair's shoulders came up defensively but he sounded completely, infuriatingly, calm as he said, "Not for a year, at least. I asked Ayna."

Gest swung round to face his eldest, stung by a sudden sense of betrayal. "You knew!"

"So did I," Ceri added loyally, but then took one look at his father's expression and retreated back into the mound.

Out of the corner of his eye, Gest could see Adara weaving her way between the looms and the gathered crowd of onlookers, dispersing them with quiet words.

"You could go to Islaw for a few weeks," he suggested desperately. "Or Beckhill – Banot knows a Chanter-"

"There wouldn't be any point," Gair said earnestly, and Gest knew, just knew, that his son and heir was about to offer him an explanation that was calm and reasoned and intelligent, yet made no sense at all to any sane man.

"Fine!" he said pre-emptively, folding his arms and scowling. "Go, then. And don't hurry to come back."

Later, after Gair had quietly walked away from the lamentations of all the old women, and after he'd had enough of Ayna and Ceri glaring at him across the eating square, Gest lay back on his bed and complained to Adara, "I don't see why he has to leave at all."

"He's young," she said, unpinning her hair until it fell down her back like a dark stream.

"Exactly!"

"But old enough to make his own choices," she elaborated and turn to smile down at him. "If I remember correctly, at his age you had already performed three tasks and won yourself a wife."

"I had some help," he reminded her, sitting up to pull her closer. She was still the most dazzling thing he'd ever seen. Then, just before he was entirely distracted, a thought occurred to him. "You don't think he's going courting among the Dorig, do you?"

Adara sighed.

 

#

 

"He's being quite unreasonable," Gerald said, his face suddenly going craggy with disapproval. "You're only going a mile or two."

"We can't all go to Otford," Gair said, leaning back on his packs and watching the still waters of the moat for movement.

"Oxford," Hafny corrected mildly from behind them.

Gair frowned up at him. "Where did you come from? I was watching."

Hafny laughed at him, in a silent, bright-eyed way, and shimmered into mist, piling down into a small silvery newt, which promptly stuck its tongue out at Gair.

"I wish you wouldn't," Gerald said sternly. "And what do you know about Oxford, anyway?"

Hafny twisted back up into himself again and draped himself across the lawn, looking as if he had no bones in his body and wouldn't have bothered to use them if he had. "It's near the Halls of the Kings." His gaze slid across to Gair. "The two of us could come and visit you."

"My father would love that," Gair muttered.

"I told you not to tell him."

"And your father would have loved that," Gair said, and imagined Hathil's reaction if Gest stormed his halls to retrieve his son for a second time.

Hafny hummed agreement in a way that suggested he found the prospect hilarious.

Gerald sighed heavily. "Don't start a war while I'm gone."

"We wouldn't," Gair assured him, faintly offended.

"No," Hafny said, stretching out towards the bright autumn sunlight. "We'll wait until you'll home for the solstice."

"Gair," Gerald said, very seriously. "Please don't let him-"

"I don't know why you think I have any influence over anyone," Gair protested and Hafny sighed.

At that moment, they were distracted by a splash from the moat. A gleaming trout came leaping from below the curtain of golden leaves that floated on the grey water, its scales gleaming against the greyness of the woods.

"She's showing off," Hafny said, without moving. "Don't encourage her."

Three more leaps and then the trout was out of the water, and Halla was slinking across the lawn towards them, pulling her hood down to shake her hair back. Gair was pretty sure that she had put an extra swing in her hips, especially when Hafny groaned and rolled his eyes.

Gerald, as he always did around Halla these days, went scarlet and sputtering for several minutes.

She dropped herself down beside him with the same fluid grace as Hafny and turned to Gair. "I'm supposed to help you with your bags. Can't you hold your breath properly yet?"

"Don't you live above ground now?" Gair asked her.

She sighed. "Obviously. I'm just helping you out." Finally, she deigned to notice Gerald. "Hello, giant."

"Er, hello, Halla."

"I'm a guest in your house," she said pointedly.

"You're on the lawn," Gair felt obliged to point out, since Hafny had buried his face in the grass and was muttering rudely.

"I'm still a guest," she retorted.

"Would you like something to eat or drink?" Gerald asked finally, as Gair made eating gestures behind Halla's head.

Halla bestowed a gleaming smile on him. "You have chocolate biscuits, thank you."

"You'll get fat," Hafny said, voice muffled by the grass. "You won't be able to shift into anything smaller than a cow. Ow!"

Halla withdrew her foot from where she'd kicked him in the side and turned to Gair. "How's your sister?"

"Still prettier than you," Hafny said and rolled out of the way just in time.

 

#

 

"I think it was Halla's idea to put you in guest quarters," Hafny said, wrinkling his nose. He had stripped off his outdoor suit as soon as they had crossed the threshold of Gair's new room and now sat cross-legged on the low bed, the gold around his throat and embroidered on his shirt gleaming. In the dim light, his hair and eyes looked the same colour as the gold. Sometimes, even now, Gair had to make an effort to look at him and see Hafny, rather than something strange and dangerous and beautiful. He felt very dark and sturdy in comparison.

"Why shouldn't she?" he asked.

Hafny shrugged. "There are rooms in the family galleries. We're not desperate for space these days."

"I don't think your father would want me that close."

"I would survive the experience," a sardonic voice remarked from the doorway. "Welcome to our halls, Adara's son."

"Thank you, sir," Gair said. He had long ago decided always to err on the side of politeness with Hathil.

"I came to assure you that you are not a hostage."

"I know," Gair said as Hafny sat up indignantly.

"Nor will you be, should matters change between our peoples."

"I know that, too."

"Yes," Hathil said. "I suppose you do." He met Gair's gaze and Gair suddenly thought of him as a old dogfox, watching the hunt chase his younger brethern past with a knowing bitterness. "They tell me you have come to learn from our Songmen."

"I have." He was supposed to volunteer information now, by Dorig manners, and after a moment he decided to play by Hathil's rules, for today at least. "I thought it would be interesting."

"And you invited him," Hathil commented to his son.

Hafny grinned at him. "I thought it would be interesting too."

For a moment they stared at each other, king and prince, and then Hathil said, as if it was a joke, "At least you have sisters."

He looked at Gair as he said it, though, and Gair knew it was meant as a challenge, a dare even, and couldn't tell why.

 

#

 

As the nights grew longer, Gest told himself he was growing used to Gair's absence. He didn't look for him among the hunters. He didn't keep turning to the empty place at his council table. He certainly didn't keep visiting the looms, just to check if Gair had returned to his windowsill.

Not more than once or twice, that was.

Eventually, Ayna seized him by the elbow and marched him outside to pace around the beehives. "Father," she said at last. "Ask me."

He was going to deny needing to ask anything, but his daughter had developed a formidable stare, so he grudgingly muttered, "Is Gair going to come home?"

"Yes," Ayna said without hesitation.

"When?" Gest demanded.

"When he's found true love," she said and then lifted her hand to her mouth, wide-eyed with surprise. After a moment, she began to laugh.

That didn't help at all.

Later, after he'd snapped at every member of his council, made two of the girls cry and provoked old Miri to the point that she had scolded him in public, Banot drew him aside and suggested, very politely and very firmly, that he might want to spend some time in his own company.

Still aggrieved, Gest marched off across the Moor. It was safer to travel alone these days, with the Dorig their resentful ally, but he took no risks, keeping to the quiet paths and using the cover of the trees. The leaves were falling faster now, gathering underfoot in pale sweeps of gold and brown like scales curling off a roasted fish. Above them the trees reached for the grey sky like outstretched hands.

There would be little luck in the hunting today, he knew, not with the sun's face so shrouded, so he merely walked, as he rarely had time to do these days. In his youth, he and Banot had roamed the hills around Islaw freely, ducking into the deserted mounds to explore the ruins left by those long dead.

Those mounds were full again, their smithies smoking and their looms clacking. All three of his children had visited them and returned overflowing with stories. Banot had gone too, and come back thoughtful.

"The Moor is changing again," he said, "as the Moon changes, and I am not sure you and I are moving with it, old friend. Not as fast as our children, at least."

"Children always change too fast," Gest had grumbled, and Banot had laughed and agreed.

By the time he reached the misty edge of the water, he was feeling himself again and wondering how to make his apologies.

A heron came ghosting over the still water, low and graceful. There were no thorn bushes on this bank and although Gest did not speak words against the water, he did nod in greeting and, just to be safe, dropped his hand to his sword.

The heron hooted at him reproachfully and became Hafny.

"Well met," Gest said. He liked the boy, always had.

"Gair's well," Hafny said, wading out of the water to join him. Gest offered him a hand up and marvelled a little at how warm a Dorig's palm felt against his.

"Not well enough to come home and tell me himself," he pointed out.

Hafny blinked at him, eyes very wide and yellow in the dull light. Then he shrugged and said, "He is welcome in our halls."

"And not in his own home?" Gest demanded.

Hafny side-stepped, and clearly considered his next words. "He doesn't understand yet, I believe, that love and respect are not the same."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Gest demanded, but Hafny was dwindling into white wings and keen eyes again, and he was left alone on the misty bank.

Gest went home in a worse mood than before.

 

#

 

In the galleries below the water, Gair studied the law and history of the People of the Moon, listening to the wary accounts of Songmen and advisers. Between his times of study, he wandered the galleries, letting his Gift guide him to those who would be willing to talk: leatherworkers and goldsmiths, gummy-toothed grandmothers and lisping children who had never known a time when his people had been the enemy.

Sometimes Hafny tagged along behind him, with a sort of fascinated amusement, but those who recognised him were either unwilling to speak freely before a prince or spoke only to him, ignoring Gair. Eventually, Gair suggested that he stay behind.

He could see the hurt, just for a moment, before Hafny hid it behind nonchalance again, and felt it strike him back in return. He couldn't quite see how to mend it, though, and it went into a quiet space between them and hung there, on the edge of Gair's awareness, like a nagging tooth or a scar that was not quite healed.

Hafny seemed to have forgotten it. He no longer appeared at Gair's heels during the day, but he was there in the evenings, when Gair dined with the king and his suspicious advisers or when he relaxed in the company of Songmen, listening to songs that were both alien and deeply familiar. He was also there when Gair took himself away from all other company, either commenting snidely on the trials of the day or sitting in shared silence.

"Do you ever wonder," he asked one day, his hair curling loosely down so Gair could barely see his expression, "if there are more of your people somewhere?"

"I'm sure there are," Gair said. "If both your people and the giants have survived outside the Moor, there must be more of us. Orban wasn't the first to flit, you know." And then something stirred in him, a familiar and absolute certainty, and he added, "Ceri will have to find them, of course. He's the only one who can both find them and survive the journey back."

"I thought you might go looking," Hafny said.

"I need to be here," Gair said, surprised. He couldn't imagine leaving the Moor or the people here who he needed so much. "I thought you knew that."

"I have to stay too," Hafny said, drawing up a knee and studying Gair from behind the shadow of his hair. He didn't elaborate, but Gair understood that he didn't resent that obligation any more than Gair himself did. They belonged to this place, the two of them. Then Hafny said, voice carefully neutral, "I thought you might be planning a journey."

"No," Gair said, shocked. "No more than you are."

"Ah," Hafny said and sat up so Gair could see he was smiling properly. "Good."

 

#

 

Gest got quite used to Hafny appearing beside him, to the extent that he started watching for newts and blackbirds and grass snakes. Every time, Hafny would gift him with some snippet of news – "Gair is studying the Lay of Heril and Bern and wants me to ask Adara what the People of the Sun know about dragons," or, "We hunted near Otmound today and Gair brought down a stag. At the feast afterwards, my mother finally decided that she liked him."

"I should hope so," Gest said indignantly at that. "Why shouldn't she?"

Hafny flashed him a wry smile at that and remarked, "Mothers have their own ways of seeing."

It was strange, Gest thought sometimes, how much easier it was to understand Hafny than to make sense of Gair. He expected Hafny to think differently about the world, but he still wasn't sure where Gair had got it from.

He didn't realise he had said that aloud until Hafny sighed and said, "For a people so good with words, you don't understand thoughts at all."

Then he wandered off to talk with Ayna and Ceri. They both welcomed him every time, and Ceri took to lurking dreamily on Gair's windowsill after each visit, sketching the shapes of hills and the lines of roads in the dust. Ayna simply smiled a little more after each visit, as if she was holding back peals of laughter by will alone.

Gest began to worry that he shouldn't be worried about Gair marrying some Dorig girl. That night, he mentioned, very casually, to Adara that Hafny seemed rather fond of Ayna and should they be having a quiet word with the two of them.

Adara laughed so hard that she rolled off the bed.

"She's a pretty girl," Gest protested. Personally, he would happily have locked away every young man who sent a longing glance in his girl's direction, but Adara had banned it.

"And if young Brad ever looks beyond his harp, she'll catch him in a heartbeat," she told him now. "And you'll have grandbabies to fuss over, which will be good for you."

"But Hafny-"

Adara giggled, her laughter as young and sweet as Ayna's. "It's not Ayna he's chasing."

"Oh," said Gest and then he began to laugh just as hard as the rest of his family. At last, when he had laughed half his troubles out, he asked, "Is that why Gair left?"

"I don't think Gair knows," Adara said, her face troubled. "He never learnt to expect these things to be returned."

Later on the edge of sleep, Gest sat up to say, "Well, at least he left for a good reason."

Adara mumbled at him and pulled the blankets up closer to her chin.

"And what's more," Gest continued. "If Hathil tries to set three tasks, I shall set four."

Adara opened her eyes and said, very firmly, "You will not.. Go to sleep."

All the same, Gest entertained himself thoroughly for days trying to devise the most cunning and glorious challenges imaginable. And if sometimes, he chuckled away to himself in the middle of conversations, his counsellors took it as a great improvement on the poor temper he had shown them since Gair left.

 

#

 

When Gair got back to his rooms that evening, his mind still full of ridgeways, gorse roads and other secret paths that giants did not deign to follow, Hafny was asleep on his bed, breathing heavily into the thin grey pillows.

Gair sat down on the edge of the bed and studied him. Halla had found him today, while he was sharing his lunch with two smiths in the lower halls. She had told him a number of things, in an indirect way, and left him aware all over again, of that little pulsing sadness that had been working its way deeper and deeper into the heart of his friendship.

He could still remember the thrill of seeing Hafny for the first time: of liking him and being liked just as fiercely in return. He understood him too, and thought Hafny returned that understanding, in a way that no one else could, not even Gerald: no one else carried the weight of their father's disappointment and expectations in quite the same way.

And Hafny was, and Gair felt this right down to his heart too, beautiful. Not like Halla was beautiful, in a way that made men catch their breath and lose their wits. It was quieter and slyer than that, all contained in the grace of his hands and the fall of his hair and the calmness in his eyes. It had always fascinated Gair, how self-possessed Hafny was, and he wondered now about how far that control stretched, whether he could make Hafny flustered and shrill or whether he himself would be the one to submit to that strength.

Hafny stirred in his sleep, turning his face against Gair's thigh and then woke with a start.

Gair took a deep breath and relaxed enough to let his Gift guide him.

"Sorry," Hafny said, sitting up. "I sat down to wait and must have been more tired than I thought."

"I don't mind," Gair said. "You're always welcome to sleep here."

Hafny blushed, suddenly pink-cheeked, but said, "You spent the day looking at maps again."

"And with the smiths and learning the Lay of Heril and Bern."

"That one's supposed to be easy," Hafny said and yawned. "Sorry."

"What have you been doing?"

"I tried to turn into a bee," Hafny said. "I've never met anyone who has."

"Did you manage it?"

He shook his head, mouth turning down ruefully. "It turns out that you can't become just one bee. You have to be many bees and it took a while to put myself back together. Then I went to see your father."

"Hmm," Gair said and slid down against the pillows himself, so their faces were on a level. "How is he?"

"He kept slapping me on the back and advising me not to rely on the helpfulness of giants. He misses you."

"Does he understand why I left yet?"

Hafny lifted one shoulder in a wry shrug. "If you're waiting for him to understand you, you'll never go home."

"I know," Gair said but it didn't hurt quite as much as it always had in Garholt. Here, only a handful of people had met his father. They knew him for himself and somehow that moved Gest away from the centre of his life. He could put himself there now, and reach out to invite someone else in.

Hafny turned to look at him and seemed startled to find their faces only a breath apart. The pink rose in his cheeks again. "Are you going to go home?"

The trick, Gair thought, was to find the real questions among all the misdirection. "I know why I find the Lay of Heril so hard."

"Why?" Hafny asked and he looked genuinely startled by the direction of the conversation.

"Because I already know it," Gair told him. "We call it Bern's Ride and our Chanters have always wondered who Heril was. He's not in our genealogies."

"Bern was one of your people?" Hafny said, eyes bright with interest. "That'll get the old men squawking."

"I think both songs should be sung more widely," Gair said. "Two princes fighting side by side, in the name of the Three Powers."

"Yes," Hafny murmured and his blush wasn't fading. He wet his lips quickly and then went very still as Gair's gaze flitted to his mouth.

"I always wondered about Bern and Heril," Gair said, putting all his trust in his Gift because he would otherwise be too scared to speak. "Whether they were lovers, I mean."

"I think they were," Hafny said, and his hands were on Gair's arms, holding him close. "I think they loved each other and were better kings because of it."

And then they were tangled together, mouths meeting warmly, and there was no more time for words or thoughts.

 

#

 

And that night, in Garholt, Gest said to his daughter, as he said every night, "Ayna, when is Gair coming home?"

"Tomorrow," Ayna said and smiled so brightly that across the hall Brad's the Chanter's son, looking up at that moment, felt his hands fall from the strings of his harp and his heart go flying across the room to her, like a heron flies across the misty marsh.